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Marking Boundaries in Beowulf: Æschere’s Head, Grendel’s Arm and the Dragon’s Corpse

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image of Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik

In the Old English poem Beowulf, several body parts are put on display, including Grendel’s arm at Heorot and Æschere’s head on top of a cliff. The first instance has been widely discussed by various scholars, who have tried to find out why and where the arm was hung. By contrast, scholarly treatments of the second instance are relatively scarce. This article places the exhibition of Æschere’s head by Grendel’s mother in the context of similar practices of decapitation and display in Anglo-Saxon England. It will be argued that the placement of the head of Æschere on top of the cliff towering over Grendel’s mere resembles the Anglo-Saxon heafod stoccan, ‘head stakes’, which acted as boundary markers. The monster’s act, therefore, would not strike as foreign to the Anglo-Saxon audience, but would be familiar. As we will show, the identification of Æschere’s head as a boundary marker, placed at the edge of the monsters’ domain, also has some bearing on the interpretation of other potential boundary markers in the poem, including Grendel’s arm and the dragon’s corpse. Lastly, we will argue for a new reading of two textual cruces in Beowulf’s speech prior to his fight with Grendel.

Affiliations: 1: Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society, Universiteit LeidenNiederlande ; 2: Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society, Universiteit LeidenNiederlande


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